Bem’s Precognition Research and the Crisis in Contemporary Science
Recently Daryl Bem defended his famous research into precognition in a letter to The Chronicle of Higher Education. More recently, as in this week, Salon published a major piece about Bem and his research that delves deeply into its implications for the whole of contemporary science — especially psychology and the other social sciences (or “social sciences”), but also the wider of world of science in general — and shows how Bem’s research, and the reactions to it, have highlighted, underscored, and called out some very serious problems:
Bem’s 10-year investigation, his nine experiments, his thousand subjects—all of it would have to be taken seriously. He’d shown, with more rigor than anyone ever had before, that it might be possible to see into the future. Bem knew his research would not convince the die-hard skeptics. But he also knew it couldn’t be ignored.
When the study went public, about six months later, some of Bem’s colleagues guessed it was a hoax. Other scholars, those who believed in ESP — theirs is a small but fervent field of study — saw his paper as validation of their work and a chance for mainstream credibility.
But for most observers, at least the mainstream ones, the paper posed a very difficult dilemma. It was both methodologically sound and logically insane. Daryl Bem had seemed to prove that time can flow in two directions — that ESP is real. If you bought into those results, you’d be admitting that much of what you understood about the universe was wrong. If you rejected them, you’d be admitting something almost as momentous: that the standard methods of psychology cannot be trusted, and that much of what gets published in the field — and thus, much of what we think we understand about the mind — could be total bunk.
If one had to choose a single moment that set off the “replication crisis” in psychology — an event that nudged the discipline into its present and anarchic state, where even textbook findings have been cast in doubt — this might be it: the publication, in early 2011, of Daryl Bem’s experiments on second sight.
The replication crisis as it’s understood today may yet prove to be a passing worry or else a mild problem calling for a soft corrective. It might also grow and spread in years to come, flaring from the social sciences into other disciplines, burning trails of cinder through medicine, neuroscience, and chemistry. It’s hard to see into the future. But here’s one thing we can say about the past: The final research project of Bem’s career landed like an ember in the underbrush and set his field ablaze. . . .
When Bem started investigating ESP, he realized the details of his research methods would be scrutinized with far more care than they had been before. In the years since his work was published, those higher standards have increasingly applied to a broad range of research, not just studies of the paranormal. “I get more credit for having started the revolution in questioning mainstream psychological methods than I deserve,” Bem told me. “I was in the right place at the right time. The groundwork was already pre-prepared, and I just made it all startlingly clear.”
Looking back, however, his research offered something more than a vivid illustration of problems in the field of psychology. It opened up a platform for discussion. Bem hadn’t simply published a set of inconceivable findings; he’d done so in a way that explicitly invited introspection. In his paper proving ESP is real, Bem used the word replication 33 times. Even as he made the claim for precognition, he pleaded for its review.
“Credit to Daryl Bem himself,” [University of California-Berkeley business school professor] Leif Nelson told me. “He’s such a smart, interesting man. . . . In that paper, he actively encouraged replication in a way that no one ever does. He said, ‘This is an extraordinary claim, so we need to be open with our procedures.’ . . . It was a prompt for skepticism and action.”
Bem meant to satisfy the skeptics, but in the end he did the opposite: He energized their doubts and helped incite a dawning revolution. Yet again, one of the world’s leading social psychologists had made a lasting contribution and influenced his peers. “I’m sort of proud of that,” Bem conceded at the end of our conversation. “But I’d rather they started to believe in psi as well. I’d rather they remember my work for the ideas.”
Note that the article also contains, in its middle section, a fascinating personal profile and mini-biography of Bem himself, including a recounting of his life-long interest in mentalism, which began in his teen years and persisted into his career in academia:
As a young professor at Carnegie Mellon University, Bem liked to close out each semester by performing as a mentalist. After putting on his show, he’d tell his students that he didn’t really have ESP. In class, he also stressed how easily people can be fooled into believing they’ve witnessed paranormal phenomena.